What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.
On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?
Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.
Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.
Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.
What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”
Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.
Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.
“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.
Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.
The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).
A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.
“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”
A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.
Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.
In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.
“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.
In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.